TPC Sawgrass: How two rounds changed my perspective of a PGA Tour pro

May 13, 2016; Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, USA; A general view as storm clouds approach the clubhouse as play is stopped during the second round of the 2016 Players Championship golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass - Stadium Course. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
May 13, 2016; Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, USA; A general view as storm clouds approach the clubhouse as play is stopped during the second round of the 2016 Players Championship golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass - Stadium Course. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports /

TPC Sawgrass once taught me how good the players on the PGA Tour really are.

The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is one of the most recognized golf courses on the planet. THE PLAYERS Championship, which has been held annually on the flagship TPC layout since 1982, has become the unofficial fifth major in professional golf and in many ways is as coveted a win as any of the four major championships. THE PLAYERS Championship features arguably the toughest field all season, a purse of $10.5 million and a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour. THE PLAYERS Championship has also in many ways replaced The Masters as the greatest offensive show in golf.

In the last decade, it has taken an average of 13-under to win THE PLAYERS. Wait…what? 13- under par? On that course? What format, an eight-man scramble? Nope, that would be 72-hole individual stroke play. A decade later, I still can’t get my mind around what score it takes to win at TPC Sawgrass. Allow me to elaborate. 

I, like every golf fan in the world, had spent years becoming familiar with TPC Sawgrass courtesy of television. I even considered myself somewhat of an expert on the course seeing as I once shot 59 there…on my Playstation. Between those credentials and my scratch handicap at the time, surely I couldn’t shoot any worse than 75 or so at the Stadium Course, right? Not so much.

Years ago, when I thought I could play a little bit, I finally got the opportunity to play a couple of rounds at TPC Sawgrass and unless you’re an actual touring pro, my advice is if you ever have the opportunity to play there, go ahead and pass on it. Unless you’re into torturing yourself and crushing your golf ego, that is.

TPC Sawgrass was built with the intent of being a true spectators course both on site and on television. The course doesn’t necessarily favor any particular strength as there is a mix of length and shape of all the holes throughout. The one thing they do all have in common is you MUST drive the ball extremely well and you absolutely have to not only hit the greens, but you must be in a precise location on each green. Short side is somewhat dead on any course, correct. Well, short-side misses at Sawgrass can lead to literally dead as you might become gator bait or target practice for a water moccasin. The Sawgrass site was actually just wooded wetlands and swamp that was miraculously transformed into what you see today. Evidently, some of the local inhabitants decided not to relocate and instead declared themselves kind of a natural hazard.

In fairness to myself, I wasn’t swinging very well when I arrived to tee it up and unless you are in complete command of your ball striking, TPC Sawgrass will expose you immediately. I’m speculating because it has been a few years and under no circumstances were the scorecards something to forever cherish , but I don’t think if you took my best ball for two rounds it would break 80….and that’s not breaking 80 with several birdies by the way.

Holes 16,17 and 18 usually get the most TV time and attention and while they are undoubtedly a great finishing stretch of hole, they are also, in my opinion, three of the easier holes on the course.

Holes 4-8 consist of four extremely difficult par-4s in a row followed by the most unpleasant par-3 on earth, the 237-yard 8th hole, which features a long, narrow green with a tier running the length of the green, falling 100 feet (or so it seemed) from left to right. The narrow target had a pond short and right and if you missed left, you had to deal with the cliff running away with your pitch. All the 8th requires is for the best players in the world to hit the longest iron in their bag dead straight and hope they don’t get a bad bounce so they can escape with a par. What’s amazing is that for the most part, they all do. Hole 8 at Sawgrass isn’t even really that famous and I promise you most amateurs will make X on it more often than not, especially from 240 yards.

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Touring pros are touring pros because they ALL hit the driver really long and really straight. To be able to post the prerequisite 13-under par it takes to win, it is almost unfathomable that someone can navigate 4-7 at Sawgrass for four consecutive rounds and then survive No. 8 without making X before finishing the front nine with a par-5 that’s not an easy birdie, even for the pros.

In two rounds the highlights of my play were:

  • Birdied No. 9 both times. Driver, 3-wood, wedge, made 10-footer twice.
  • Birdied No.16 once after reaching green in two.
  • Par on No. 17 once. Hit the green and spun back into the water the second time around.
  • Par on No.18 twice.

I know I made a few other pars but I honestly don’t recall which holes they were on. I do remember wishing I had a caddy that knew where to point me and then I remember wishing someone had advised me not to try Sawgrass at all.

Simply put, TPC Sawgrass is a very difficult golf course. THE PLAYERS Championship has become one of golf’s premier events and just playing the course gave me an appreciation for just how good a PGA Tour pro really is.

The course has been renovated since I have been there, including turning No.12 into a very drivable par-4. Adding that element into the mix and doing so on the back nine, TPC Sawgrass arguably hosts the most compelling closing nine in tournament golf.

TPC Sawgrass already has perhaps the truly toughest group of par-3s. The two par-5s on the front aren’t necessarily memorable other than you have to keep it in play and while No. 2 is fairly reachable in two shots, number nine really isn’t. The two par-5s on the back are both truly great risk-reward holes that can yield anything from an eagle to a bowling score at any given time. Considering No. 12 is now a possible eagle, it’s not a far-fetched scenario for some drama to play out on Sunday that hasn’t really ever been seen before. The back nine will now have holes 11,12 and 16 as potential eagle opportunities. Combine that with the natural drama of 17 and 18 and the intensity and excitement come late Sunday with a crowded leaderboard will truly make Sawgrass iconic. But seriously, unless you’re actually entered in The PLAYERS Championship you’re almost certain to find this exciting back nine more enjoyable as a spectator than as a player.

It is hard to fathom that the man that does win THE PLAYERS Championship hasn’t had to hit every club in his bag at some point in doing so.  The variance in length of the collection of par-4s at Sawgrass practically guarantees that to be the case.

TPC Sawgrass also features all sorts of valleys and bumps throughout its layout that produce bad bounces, awkward stances and difficult shots that even the best players in the world aren’t immune to. The field of pros actually do themselves an injustice in showing off their talent in how well they play through all those elements.

I have spent a lifetime watching and playing golf. I’m of the opinion that if you’re a golfer and you follow the pros regularly, you daydream as to how your game might hold up on the same courses they play. This week, as you watch the drama unfold, you’re wasting energy thinking about it. Trust me, for it to likely take 13-under to win at TPC Sawgrass…these guys are good. Really good.

Next: 5 groups to watch at THE PLAYERS

Be sure to check back in with us throughout THE PLAYERS Championship as we’ll continuously update the happenings from TPC Sawgrass. And to stay up-to-date on everything we’re doing, please head on over and like the Pro Golf Now Facebook page and follow us on Twitter at @ProGolfNow. Enjoy THE PLAYERS.